Labor Day each year brings many memories, but it also comes with many questions. The conversations and programs often are confusing. Are they speaking of labor, the noun, or are they discussing labor, the verb? There are a lot of synonyms for each. This day I prefer to speak of the labor that creates, that gives birth to something special, that is difficult, joyous, fulfilling, exhausting, exhilarating, and full of anticipation, expectation, wonderment, and even fear and pain. All of these can co-exist in the planting of a garden and even more so in the labor of birth.
Whatever synonym one chooses, it seems to be tied to the word “work.” We even tie the education of our children and youth to the word. “Honey, just remember you’re going to work just like mommy and daddy,” we say. And so they go off to “work” in this place called school. They labor in a place that should be filled with enchantment and joy, but is often filled with tedium, repetition, being told what to do all day, and often filled with few opportunities for choice and real problem solving. Monopolies breed these attitudes, and public schools are monopolies.
While the children labor in the vineyard of the school, the adults labor in the “workplace.” My first one was my home. I can’t remember when I didn’t have chores. Neither can I remember any time in my life when I wasn’t tagging someone around trying to learn how to do something. When would I be big enough to run the tractor? When could I knead the bread? I could dry the dishes if I stood on a chair, or feed the chickens if mother carried the feed.
I was fascinated with how things worked–the windmill, the incubator, water in its various states, and the diversity of the snowflakes. Examination was not a test in my life, it was an opportunity to examine, to observe, and to ask the questions that filled my environment. My unpaid workplaces fit the old Confucius saying: Choose a job you love and you will never have to work a day in your life.
My first paid job was working for my eighth grade teacher cleaning her apartment. What faith she had in giving an eleven year old kid a job. But I was grateful for the fifteen cents an hour I earned. Opportunity knocked early on my door. And it’s been knocking regularly since then. I ushered in the little theater in town; that allowed me to see movies.
At about this same time, my grandfather, the master of thrift, hard work, and personal responsibility, was also the master teacher. He would never give us (I had many cousins) money, but he would always provide opportunities for us to earn it. He provided the seed potatoes, the plot of ground ready to plant, and taught us how to do the rest by his example. I planted those potatoes, I hoed those potatoes in the hot Iowa sun, and learned how to look to nature for the rain and occasional cloudy day when I could abandon that straw hat he insisted I wear. I was so proud of that paycheck when I sold those potatoes.
But the lessons were the priceless parts of the process. Maya Angelou has said it well: Nothing will work unless you do. I found out in that potato field the truth in the statement of Thomas Edison: Opportunity is often missed by most people because it is dressed up in overalls and looks like work.
Grandpa offered the same opportunity to all, but others saw only opportunity dressed up in overalls and looking like work. I could only learn the lessons of hard work by working hard. Margaret Mead knew this. Even the home-spun advice of Ann Landers informed us: Opportunities are usually disguised as hard work so most people don’t recognize them. I am thankful for the early lessons of recognition.